When asked what the title gathering is all about midway through "The Cookout," blandly directed by Lance Rivera (his debut), one of the characters spells it out like this: "A cookout is all about the three F's: fun, food, and family." If only the film itself had taken Em's (Jenifer Lewis) wise advice, the project might have been in good hands. There is certainly an extended family present in "The Cookout," and there's deep-fried food on display, but the all-important fun is nowhere to be found. Most of the characters are an insufferable lot, not really even enjoying themselves at the said cookout, while unnecessary racist jokes, stereotypical homosexual portrayals, witless physical slapstick, and potential gun violence fill the bulk of the running time. When things occasionally try to turn serious, sermonizing the importance of families and togetherness, it feels heavy-handed and out of place, not acting on the lessons it tries to stuff down the viewer's throat until, ultimately, it is too late.
Todd Anderson (Storm P) is a star basketball player who has just been drafted to his home team, the New Jersey Nets, a deal that promises him a $30-million pay day. Much to the chagrin of his down-home mother, Em, and his manager, Wes (Jonathan Silverman), who warns him to spend his money wisely until he is assured the handsome salary, Todd promptly buys a mansion in an affluent, predominantly white private neighborhood. On the day Todd is visited by a lady considering him for endorsements, word accidentally gets out that a cookout is underway. Soon, the house is filled with his highly varied, boisterous family members, and Todd must do everything in his power to control his relatives and win over the sponsor. He also has time to rekindle the flame with childhood best friend Becky (Eve), who is much more suited for him than his current gold-digging girlfriend, Brittany (Meagan Good).
With five credited screenwriters on display and three more credited to the story (including Queen Latifah, who also produces and makes the longest "special appearance" in film history as an outspoken, sassy rent-a-cop), "The Cookout" is both overstuffed to the gils and undernourished to the point where there really is no driving plot to speak of. In the place of material that might have held a driving force for the audience's interest, there are three handfuls of subplots, most of them more irritating that beguiling. Bling Bling (Ja Rule) and Weezer (Ruperto Vanderpool) are two hoods out to force Todd to sign a collection of sneakers as a way of making fast money. Queen Latifah's (2003's "Bringing Down the House
") bumbling security guard is immediately suspicious of the black folks moving into the estate, but all she truly wants is to be promoted to real police officer. Wisecracking, heavy-set twins (Jerod Mixon, Jamal Mixon), cousins of Todd's, laugh their way through pot smoke, but, this being a forced-upon PG-13 comedy, the drug paraphernalia is never glimpsed and a lot of jarring cuts occur throughout just as characters are about to curse. The neighbors (Farrah Fawcett and a white-washed Danny Glover) fear for their safety as the cookout heats up, and are soon forced into joining in on the festivities. And Em does everything in her power to get the money-hungry Brittany out of the picture, sending her on a wild goose chase for a high-sodium boned ham. No mention has even been made of the jealousy Em's sister has for her and Todd's success, or the always-pregnant ho-bag out to snatch her kids a rich daddy, or the well-dressed, lawyer-wannnabe uncle (Tim Meadows) who, after nine tries, has yet to pass the bar exam.
Jenifer Lewis (2002's "Juwanna Mann
") gets a few zippy one-liners and adds a sense of class as Todd's caring, set-in-her-ways mother, Em, but the rest of the diverse cast mug for the cameras in desperate ways. The ensemble is, no doubt, a novel onewhat other movie will you ever see featuring Ja Rule, Farrah Fawcett, Queen Latifah, Danny Glover, and Vincent Pastore?but they are wasted in one-dimensional, borderline-offensive parts. As the girl Todd is meant to be with, Becky, Eve (2004's "Barbershop 2: Back in Business
") shows up for five minutes, holds no chemistry with any of her co-stars, and cashes a quick paycheck. As Bling Bling's smoking, wheezing sidekick, Wheezer, Ruperto Vanderpool is insufferably awful and never funny, while Ja Rule (2003's "Scary Movie 3
") is not much better. Farrah Fawcett's (2000's "Dr. T and the Women
") job is to look shocked and scared at the sight of her black neighbors, even though she has a black husband herself. The jokes don't get any more clever than that. Har-har.
In its own misguided way, "The Cookout" means well, and every now and again a glimmer of genuine sweetness threatens to shine through (mostly stemming from Jenifer Lewis' strong work), but it is all for naught in the long run. "The Cookout" is flatly lensed by cinematographer Tom Houghton (one daytime scene was so clearly filmed at night that it elicits confusion), but what is more problematic is how dumbed-down the premise and characters are. These threadbare people don't pass muster as actual human beings for a second, at the mercy of a screenplay that prefers gimmicky plotting and dim, laughless comedynot to mention some strangely discriminatory material passing as frothy schtickover believable human interactions and natural story developments. "The Cookout" holds a smug, mean-spirited undercurrent, made all the more rotten by an attempted sincerity as false as a set of dentures.